Two approaches to helping people learn anything, or to change anything in their lives: lure them with the promise of treats, like dangling a carrot in front of the horse’s nose; or threaten them with discomfort or pain, like whacking the horse’s rear with a stick. The Yoga Sutras speak of Clinging and Aversion. Or as we moderns might say, offer them Nourishment or Challenges.
Several times over the years I’ve read studies that suggest that the most effective way to learn a new skill, attain a fresh way of seeing things or change our behavior is through some kind of balance between the two, some weaving together of Nourishment and caring support on the one hand, with a more-demanding approach where our old ways are questioned or Challenged more directly.
Too much honey doesn’t give the best results, nor does too much vinegar. Just as common sense would tell us.
Now I’ll bet that if you were to poll one thousand yoga teachers, they would each assert—if they’ve thought about it at all—that they in their classes have achieved the perfect balance between the two. Just the right amount of holding, caring and nourishment on the one hand, balanced with just the right amount of challenge or pushing on the other hand.
And yet any clear-eyed student could see right away that in fact the teachers are spread out all along that honey-vinegar spectrum, some teachers dangling way more carrots, other teachers wielding the stick more vigorously. And yet all these teachers have students. What’s going on?
Obviously one thing is that different students respond differently; they have different appetites for either honey or vinegar. Of course.
And yet, in much public discourse about yoga, it often seems there is a not-so-subtle bias towards honey as the one pure and proper teaching approach, and a denigration of vinegar as somehow less “spiritual.” As though, if we were all to somehow evolve properly into our “true, fully-actualized” selves, we would naturally migrate towards the honey end of the spectrum. It’s easy to see the way many people comfort themselves with this idea, in pretty much any arena of human involvement, not just yoga classes. It seems to me, though, that we live in a yin-yang sort of a universe: nights and days, the tide comes in and the tide goes out, everything runs in cycles—some of them short and easy to grasp, others too elusive or subtle for our human minds.
And let us not forget that this discussion is happening not in some secluded mountain hermitage, but in the yoga marketplace of America, worth hundreds of millions of dollars each year, with its trigger warnings and safe spaces, where every student gets praised just for showing up, swiping their credit card, and rolling out their mat.
As my very astute mother used to say, “You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.” Now if only having a yoga practice was about catching flies….